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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware this website contains images, voices and names of people who have died.

‘All dead, all dead!’

1789: Smallpox breaks out in Sydney

National Library of Australia nla.obj-135701554
1700 1800

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Question for discussion

1. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the smallpox epidemic is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which 3 images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Examining a painting as evidence

1. Look carefully at Joseph Lycett’s early painting of life around Sydney in 1822, about 30 years after the First Fleet arrived.

(a) What evidence of settlement can you see?

(b) Who are the people shown in the painting?

(c) How does the painting make you feel? Why?

2. After reading about how smallpox affected Aboriginal people, do you think the painting is likely to be accurate? Why or why not?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group, create a final list of 3 questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Photograph of the face of a smallpox patient</p>
National Museum of Australia

WARNING: This page contains some difficult and potentially distressing content.

In a snapshot

Smallpox was one of the worst diseases to affect human beings. It killed around three out of every 10 people who caught it, until it was finally controlled by a vaccine more than 50 years ago. The Europeans who arrived in Australia from 1788 onwards had developed some resistance to smallpox because they’d been exposed to it before. But the local First Nations peoples had never come into contact with the disease, so when it broke out in the Sydney area in April 1789 they began to die in great numbers.

Photograph of the face of a smallpox patient

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. What is smallpox? Who did it mainly affect in Australia?

2. What could David Collins never forget?

3. What other common European diseases seriously affected First Nations peoples?

Photograph of the arm of a smallpox patient.

What is smallpox?

Smallpox is one of the most deadly diseases to have affected human beings. Throughout its long history, it infected hundreds of millions of people and killed tens of millions of people. Those who survived were often badly scarred, blinded, or both.

When did smallpox come to Sydney and how did it spread?

Significant numbers of First Nations peoples died from the diseases that were introduced as they had no immunity to these introduced diseases.

It is not clear how the smallpox epidemic began, but the most likely source was the ‘variolas matter’ Surgeon John White brought with him on the First Fleet. Variolas matter’ is pus taken from a person who has the disease and sealed in a glass bottle to isolate and preserve it. Surgeon White intended to use it to variolite (immunise) any children born in the settlement. It is not known how the variolas matter infected the local First Nations peoples.

‘At that time a native was living with us; and on taking him down to the harbour to look for his former companions, those who witnessed his expression and agony can never forget either. He looked anxiously around him in different coves we visited; not a vestige on the sand was to be found of human foot … not a living person was anywhere to be met with. It seemed as if, flying from the contagion, they had left the dead to bury the dead. He lifted up his hands and eyes in silent agony for some time; at last he exclaimed, “All dead! All dead!” And then hung his head in mournful silence…’

David Collins, Judge-Advocate of the colony, April 1789

What were the effects on First Nations peoples?

Smallpox spread across Australia as European settlement spread, bringing with it a huge number of deaths. The disease affected entire generations of the First Nations population, and survivors were often left without family or community leaders. After smallpox came influenza, measles, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases. Significant numbers of First Nations peoples died from these introduced diseases as they had no immunity to them.

Research task


Read this article about the smallpox epidemic. What were two possible ways smallpox was introduced into the colony? Why is it unlikely that either of these explanations is correct?

National Museum of Australia

<p>‘View of the Heads at the Entrance to Port Jackson’, by Joseph Lycett, 1824</p>

National Library of Australia nla.obj-135701554

<p>‘View of the Heads at the Entrance to Port Jackson’, by Joseph Lycett, 1824</p>

How was smallpox overcome?

No cure for smallpox has ever been found. But in 1796 the English doctor Edward Jenner decided to test the belief that milkmaids who had caught the relatively mild disease cowpox were immune to smallpox. He proved it was true, and from the cowpox virus he created the world’s first vaccine (from vacca, Latin for ‘cow’), which has since saved millions of lives. The last smallpox case in Australia was identified during the First World War. 

Australian virologist Frank Fenner chaired the World Health Organization agency that eradicated smallpox in 1977. 


Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. What is smallpox, and who did it mainly affect in Australia?

2. What could David Collins never forget?

3. What other common European diseases seriously affected First Nations peoples?